If you ever had the feeling that there may be a connection between stress and obesity, it's for a good reason -- there IS a connection between stress and obesity. Recent research in the matter has shown that not only is stress a contributing factor to obesity, it's actually a much larger part of the problem than originally imagined. There are several ways in which stress is linked to obesity, making it a complex problem that is difficult to manage. This is a large part of why the United States faces such a large problem with obesity today.
Stress and obesity are correlated
One thing that most experts have discovered about stress and obesity is that they both feed into one another, causing those who suffer from the problems to fall into a downward spiral. The more stress one feels the more one tends to eat, and the more one eats, the more stress they tend to feel. This is something most people have felt at one point or another. People associate periods of high stress with the idea of "comfort food," food that is high in sugar or fat. The problem is that comfort food ultimately causes more stress in the long term, not unlike cigarette smoking.
Food that is rich in carbohydrates raises your serotonin levels
There are many biological factors in play when it comes to stress and food cravings. Food that is high in carbohydrates (sugars) naturally raises one's serotonin levels. Serotonin in a chemical in the body that is related to happiness. Often people deficient in serotonin suffer from depression. So when the food we are eating physically makes us feel happy, we want to eat more of it. When most of that food happens to be very high fat items like doughnuts and cookies, it suddenly becomes clear how obesity fits into the picture.
Stress releases cortisol which increases cravings
Our body works the other way, too. We know tasty and unhealthy food releases chemicals that make us feel happy and want to eat more of it. What we also know is that stress releases chemicals too. When a person suffers from ongoing high amounts of stress their body produces too much cortisol. Cortisol manages the way fat is utilized by the body and can increase appetite and cravings. So when you think that stress releases chemicals that make us hungry, and eating unhealthy food releases chemicals that makes us feel good, it becomes easy to see how stress and obesity are so linked and why it's such a tough cycle to break out of.
Stress causes emotional eating
The problem that this ultimately leads to is what is called stress eating or emotional eating. Many people who indulge in stress eating don't realize that they're even doing it. It's part of what makes it so dangerous -- when you reach for that candy bar, you're probably not stopping to consider why you are. Many people don't even realize that they have a problem with stress. It tends to creep up on people, and by the time they realize that they no longer feel in control of their life they find themselves caught in the stress eating downward spiral. Eating sugary or fatty food is ultimately not a good way to deal with stress, and trying to break that cycle once it has started is difficult -- and important.
So how exactly does one break out of the stress eating/more stress spiral? Well, there are several things a person should try when they're caught in this trap.
- When you are about to eat, especially a snack, take a moment before you make the snack to ask yourself an important question: am I hungry right now? If you're not, why are you going to eat? Are you bored? Are you feeling stressed or emotional? If you find yourself in this situation, where you feel you want to eat but you're not hungry, try and find an activity or distraction for yourself that will help preoccupy you through the food craving without contributing to your stress levels.
- Make some important lifestyle changes. It's impossible to understate how important sleep is. If you're not getting enough sleep your stress levels will go way up -- which can make sleeping even more difficult. Set yourself a bedtime and keep electronic devices powered off when you're in bed. Regular exercise is hugely beneficial and maybe the best thing you can do for stress relief -- not to mention that it helps you stay in shape. Make activity a priority because it is so important to your health -- mental and physical.
- Keep a record of the foods that you crave most when you feel stressed. Different people have different go-to comfort foods, you it's important that you identify what yours are. Once you have figured out what foods you most crave when you're particularly stressed, you need to cut them out of your routine. If your go-to is ice cream, don't keep ice cream in the house. It's not doing you ever favours, so let it go!
- Deal with the problem at its source: the stress. It will be very, very difficult to cut out stress eating if you aren't able to eliminate any stress. There are many different things that could be causing stress, so work hard on identifying the stressors in your life. Stress can be difficult to treat and the advice "just don't be stressed" is easier said than done. Try practicing stress-relieving activities like meditation or yoga.
Understand that stress is connected to obesity
The obesity epidemic is one of the absolute biggest problems facing the United States and many other countries right now. It's a driving force behind heart disease, diabetes and other life-threatening illnesses. With the bond between obesity and stress being as strong as it is, it becomes clear how important it is to identify and manage the problem.
Understanding how stress is connected and how to manage stress are important steps to becoming healthier and happier. If you are in that cycle, work hard on breaking out of it. If you aren't currently someone with a stress eating problem, be aware of the causes and stay vigilant, because often people won't even realize it's happening when it starts. Manage your stress and stay disciplined -- it's the most important health tip you can learn!